In the Hitman video games, the most prestigious ranking you can attain is that of “Silent Assassin”. Earning the moniker isn’t easy; to do so, Agent 47, the bald, bar-coded contract killer, must infiltrate a location undetected, eliminate his target anonymously and escape without a trace. Unsanctioned deaths, civilian witnesses and noticeable evidence are all prohibitive. The men and women whom 47 is paid to eliminate are more ideally offed in scenarios that resemble accidents; despite the trademark dual Silverballers, 47 is less a gunslinger than the Final Destination version of Death – a walking, talking random tragedy.
I have no idea which version of these games Skip Woods has been playing. As the sole credited screenwriter on 2007’s Hitman, he wrote Timothy Olyphant into an incoherent plot stuffed with excessive, meaningless violence and inane dialogue. I bent over backwards trying to defend that movie, in part because I hoped its frequent missteps were taken with the aim of exploring a different side of these characters and ideas. Skip Woods clearly recognises the cinematic potential of Hitman, but now that his name has reappeared as a co-writer in the credits of Hitman: Agent 47, it’s clear he doesn’t really understand what’s truly compelling about these games. He doesn’t see Agent 47 as a silent assassin like they do, but instead a noisy, thoroughly unlikeable mass-murderer who seems as clueless about his presence here as we do.
This time the reins of Agent 47 have been handed to Rupert Friend, an actor who is nowhere near as inherently interesting as Olyphant and who finds himself similarly defeated by the role. The movie insists that this character has been genetically engineered to feel no pain, no fear, no love, and how do you play that? Friend has done this kind of work before, primarily as a dead-eyed CIA muckety-muck in HBO’s Homeland. But he’s better in something like David Mackenzie’s prison drama Starred Up, in which he plays a therapist who’s allowed to feel the words in the script. Agent 47 requires him to keep emotion at arm’s length, which worked in the games because they rarely required 47 to be himself. In this movie and its disavowed predecessor, he’s a dour, lifeless presence, and because neither movie understands that Hitman is about strategy and deception, both strive for whirling, slow-motion shootouts which get right to the heart of exactly what’s wrong with most video game-to-movie adaptations.
Most gamers would readily admit that whatever video games are or may eventually become, the most viable method for traditional storytelling is certainly not it. And that’s fine. Some of the best video games have profoundly silly stories, and others have none at all. But this puts movies based on them at a crucial disadvantage. The Hitman series (the fourth instalment of which, Blood Money, is in my opinion one of the greatest games ever made) inarguably falls into the former category; its narrative, which revolves around genetically-engineered globetrotting super-assassins, is patently ludicrous. The amount of time the games spend dealing with that narrative, though, is about ten minutes. The other fifteen hours are spent planning and executing wonderfully intricate, multifaceted assassinations. How do you condense that into an hour-and-a-half without displeasing everyone? I don’t think it’s possible, and if it is, Agent 47 certainly hasn’t achieved it.
Like the previous movie, Agent 47 once again situates the eponymous agent opposite a woman – in this case Katia van Dees (Hannah Ware), the daughter of a prominent geneticist (Ciaran Hinds) whose work in the Agent program holds the secrets of 47’s provenance and the key to manufacturing more of his ilk. On their trail is Le Clerq (Thomas Kretschmann) and his nefarious Syndicate (not to be confused with the decidedly more interesting organisation in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), who want to resurrect the program that Agent 47, naturally, would like to see destroyed. It’s a chase within a chase surrounded by another chase, and to director Aleksander Bach’s credit he manages to assemble the accompanying fistfights, shootouts and Audi commercials with something resembling coherence. This is a movie which sets its own low bar of quality, and is content to consistently brush up against it without ever differentiating itself from the obligatory late-summer genre duds we expect. In some ways that’s fine. Here’s a movie that knows exactly what it wants to be, which, after Terminator Genisys earlier that year, felt refreshing. But Agent 47 doesn’t know who it’s for, because it can’t. There isn’t anybody who wants to see this, at least for any reason other than being able to vegetate in the theatre while watching it.
Whether that’s a point for or against the movie will depend, I suppose, on your perspective (and disposable income). You can’t help but want more, though; it isn’t terrifyingly, hilariously bad in the way that, say, the Street Fighter movies are, or any of Uwe Boll’s, but it isn’t quite good enough to constitute a pleasant surprise either. It’s functional. Inoffensive. Anodyne. These aren’t criticisms, per se, but they’re hardly admirable qualities. A lot of the action is decent in a way that reminds you of other, more distinct genre fare, like a strobe-lit shootout which evokes the excellent John Wick, and at one point I’d made a little list of titles to re-watch when I got home. Agent 47 wears its influences on its sleeve. Another of them is Terminator, which cast Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 initially as a stalking source of malevolence, then, later, in the role of protector. Agent 47 tries a similar bait-and-switch, but Bach doesn’t have the luxury of the two movies James Cameron had, so the character dynamics feel rushed and unconvincing. Katia’s first ally is Zachary Quinto, having more fun than anyone else, and playing a man with sub-dermal body armour – just about the most video game-y thing I’ve seen in an ostensibly serious movie – who, he insists, has her best interests in mind. But the switcheroo doesn’t work here because the good guys and bad guys still seem indistinguishable even after we’ve been explicitly told who’s who. Agent 47 feels amoral in the same way it feels bizarrely asexual. Quinto’s character might be an experimental super-assassin, closer to a robot than an actual person, but why does everyone else feel like that too?
You’re just never there with this movie. There’s a cheapness to it which doesn’t necessarily feel like a budgetary issue. It makes no effort to hide the green screen or the wires or the duct tape. It doesn’t seem all that concerned with convincing you you’re watching actors playing characters rather than stunt-doubles playing actors. Industrial Light & Magic get a special effects credit, which is bizarre. Unless the whole movie is actually CG and nobody bothered to let me know, they’ve essentially stolen their fee for this one.
Making a good movie is hard, and making one based on a video game is even harder. But making a good movie based on a video game which none of the filmmakers understand or care about is, I imagine, impossible; and a mid-credits tease suggests there may well be another attempt at it. Why? If nothing else, Agent 47 proves that this idea of Hitman does not and will not work in the movies. As an action B-movie it’s uneven and weird, but ultimately fine. As an adaptation it’s horrendous. Gamers are notoriously sensitive, but sometimes it’s easy to understand why. It isn’t that Agent 47 is bad in itself, or even that Hitman as a whole deserves a fairer, more explorative treatment (although both of those things are obviously true). It’s the continuing, shameless misinterpretation of what games are, what they mean and to whom. This isn’t it. And when mainstream culture still, largely, misunderstands the medium of video games, sees them not as art but as toys, movies like this one and many others reinforce a cycle of ignorance that doesn’t benefit anyone or anything. That, I suppose, is what’s so galling about Agent 47. It’s not trampling over what video games are, but what they could be.
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